Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Seeing God at the Skirball Center

The Taste of Israel food festival brings rockstar chefs from the Holy Land to La La Land

Jeff Weiss
June 20, 2018
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
“The real question is: Did God create man or did man create God?” —Me, dropping what I believed to be a real bombshell during my bar mitzvah speech.

I’ve glimpsed what most people perceive to be God on several occasions. These scenarios invariably involved the consumption of the highest-octane psychedelics available, but after all, the genesis of Judaism is predicated around a ne’er-do-well Bronze Age shepherd, whom “God” dared to sacrifice his only son on a barren Mesopotamian rock. To briefly invoke the most-high—Ghostface Killah—who are you to tell me that I can’t have crazy visions? I won’t even count those psychic dislocations during my freshman year of college where I wandered space and time after hitting a futuristic, multipronged, ventricular weed-smoking contraption known as the Dragon. With my eyes red and round as Atomic Fireballs, I’d stumble into the communal dorm-room bathroom, glimpsing ancient ancestral faces in the mirrored reflection as frat pledges purged themselves of Natural Light in closed stalls.

Without question, I’ll spot Moses getting reprimanded by an angel in a burning bush purporting to represent the Lord. But Big Mo never made it to the promised land to gobble LSD-laced dates at Midburn, the Middle Eastern Burning Man. Give me a plague of raining amphibians any day over a Satanic psy-trance set screeching from a camp called the Pussinema, who I’m 54 percent certain were Jewish leather Nazis. My payoff was hearing an empyrean choir cast celestial judgment underneath a biblical sun at 6 a.m. I can’t even get into what they told me because that’s a completely different story.

Maybe I shouldn’t repeat the third time that I perceived the presence of the divine in this nominally Semitic publication. It doesn’t exactly gibe with the tribe’s skeptic aesthetic over the last two millennia, but I slipped two dosed sugar cubes under my tongue at a Grateful Dead after-party in an industrial district on the outskirts of San Francisco. The withered remnants of the Merry Pranksters were there and I distinctly remember deciding that it was time to go when I saw Ken Kesey’s son in a jester hat howling at the moon atop a psychedelic bus. In that slim silver corridor between dawn and darkness, a rogue taxi driver scooped me up and insisted on hauling my friend and me back to the cab depot a few miles away, where they plied us with weed and strongly urged to us to eat their Boston cream pie. This is not a euphemism. After multiple attempts to extricate myself, I was nearly stabbed by a different driver who resembled old man Marley from Home Alone but who was probably a legitimate serial killer. What you need to know is that I wound up home safe at 7 a.m. listening to Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness as Jesus appeared to me on a living-room wall, beatific and arms outstretched in a dazzling helix of champagne light. Please don’t tell my father, lest I be disowned.

Despite the specificity of the revelations, I remain totally agnostic on even the most spiritual afternoon. My umbilical cord to the Jewish people is tethered to the food. I’ve never felt the slightest bit of connection to any rabbinical cantilation, but take me to Langer’s Deli and my heart and arteries swell with pride. I like gefilte fish and chopped liver. Even my conditioning has been conditioned.

Over the last decade, there has been a continued bifurcation and expansion of the definition of Jewish food. I assume you didn’t need me to offer a midrash of the menu at Canter’s and the high blood pressure hymns of the Yiddish cookbook. But you may be less well versed in the explosion of highly regarded Israeli restaurants in the United States. Yes, Israeli food is good. In just the last eight months, Thrillist hailed it as “America’s new favorite cuisine.” The only food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Jonathan Gold, listed Israeli cooking as the No. 3 L.A. food trend prediction for 2018. Eater L.A. affirmed that “the modern Middle Eastern food movement is in full swing in Los Angeles right now.” So in the interest of fostering my spiritual growth, the editors of this publication recommended that I attend the Taste of Israel Festival in a misguided attempt to eat a lifetime supply of hummus in a single evening.

There’s no way to ignore the subtext of a Taste of Israel Festival, especially one thrown as a partial commemoration of the nation’s 70th year in existence. As with music, literature, and art, the food world’s intersection with politics, gender, and immigration is a fundamental component of cultural coverage, no matter whether you believe this to be 2018, 5778, or 1439 A.H. But this essay is already replete with discursive rambles, so I’ll veer away from the political diatribes to describe a uniquely bizarre night I spent in Los Angeles. If that isn’t good enough, the proceeds went to help children fight cancer.

I have long harbored the suspicion that all vaguely Hebraic ceremonies slant toward a very specific median—namely, the bar mitzvah. Baby namings, weddings, class-action-lawsuit-victory celebrations, they all wind up with unlimited buffets, jubilant flailing bodies hoisted in chairs, and bafflingly terrible music. My own bar mitzvah was a rare exception to the rule as I instituted a draconian “no hora” policy. In a harbinger of my future musical fascism, I rigorously vetted prospective DJs, ultimately selecting Dave Audé, a then-anonymous party-starter in a vest who wound up landing more Billboard Dance Music No. 1s than any other producer. I insisted on a heavy rotation of Dre, Snoop, and The Pharcyde, but when I left the room, he played “YMCA,” and his career was nearly over before it began.

The Taste of Israel Festival conformed to a similar praxis: the food festival bar mitzvah. It was even held at the Skirball Center, L.A. bar mitzvah central, high up in the Santa Monica Mountains above Bel Air, whose walls have witnessed more pre-pubescent Jewish 13-year-olds trying to hit the BlocBoy JB dance than any other site in Los Angeles County. (See: “Carmageddon II: Bar mitzvah at Skirball will go on as scheduled.”)

As soon as the car is parked, I’m swarmed by a preponderance of Israeli transplants in sports coats and slacks, eye-shadowed girls in short black cocktail dresses, as though they were about to go clubbing in Vegas not scarf six platters of eggplant purée. The dress code on the website advised formal wear, which was preposterous advice.

A spacious outdoor courtyard offered an impressive array of wines from the Golan Heights and the Galilee. A curly haired brunette named Sharon offered me a plastic thimble of pomegranate wine, an overly sweet kosher beverage that hit me like an insulin shot. I attempted to quaff a Shomron, a semi-dry white emerald riesling, a chenin blanc, and other wines worthy of being turned into water. Most tasted like either slightly elevated Manischewitz, or bitter colonialism.

A man strutting past in a bow tie induced flashbacks to stealing bottles from bar mitzvah tables. I remember that my grandfather insisted on surprising my whole family with a Motherboy-style duet with her friend Ginny about the profound love she felt for “her Jeffrey”—mortifying me before every pretty girl at Beverly Vista Elementary. The song was called “Always,” a completely rewritten cover of Irving Berlin, and I darted underneath the table for the duration of the performance. We didn’t speak afterwards for six months.

Once you passed the wine tasting, the main event loomed in a large dining room like the Israeli version of a tacky restaurant with mounted antlers and taxidermy beavers, where you win a free dinner if you successfully eat a 93-ounce steak doused in Worcestershire sauce. I’m ready for the challenge. Feed me, feed me, feed me beets. Everyone else around me has a look of resolve usually only found in champion marathoners. If you ever want to test the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest attend an Israeli food festival. If you’re wary of calling someone out for line cutting and using your elbows, you will be minced into shakshuka.

A dozen-plus experts in Middle Eastern cuisine have stationed themselves around the banquet hall, preparing themselves to be Wile E. Coyote-flattened by the oncoming human train. The big three are: Meir Adoni, famed for blending Indian and Moroccan flavors into traditional Levantine cooking, and for judging the popular Israeli television program, Game of Chefs (the New Yorker once hailed his ability to “serve Middle Eastern flavors while avoiding the clichés of falafel and baba ganoush”). Shaul Ben-Aderet, the man the Jerusalem Post called a “diplomat in a chef’s uniform,” who tried to broker a peace with people protesting his presence at a London food festival by offering them free chocolate pudding. Eyal Shani, perhaps the most revered, is an eccentric Jerusalem native, a staple of Israel’s Top Chef, and perhaps the nation’s closest analogue to the late Anthony Bourdain.

So here I go. Two tender kreplach dumplings stuffed with shredded brisket in a lake of creamy hummus; a pizza topped with delicately sliced prosciutto and a mysterious meat that tastes like a golden calf, more hummus, more lamb, spicy lima beans, pornographic amounts of hummus. Little carrels of hummus to be eaten hunched over with plastic spoons. At one station, I consume a psychedelically delicious street-food sandwich of braised prime ribs, eggplant, fried egg, and hummus, too, of course. It’s the closest I’ve come to death since nearly being slaughtered in that San Francisco cab. The sound of steel attacking a wooden chopping board pierces the din of guttural barks and unapologetic gluttony. It’s Eyal Shani, peacocking with deafening gusto, to the delight of dozens desperately craning necks and arms of paying customers seeking to get the definitive angle for their Instagram stories.

It becomes slightly too intense, the jostling, forcefulness, chaos. The shuk has made its way into polite civilization and the results are inducing cognitive dissonance. Who am I? Where am I? And why has my skin turned the color of garbanzo bean dip?

I dart outside to catch my breath. Within seconds, a pair of 60-something women wearing nautical dresses sit down on the bench next to me, sandwiching a despondent nebbish in a yarmulke.

“Let’s sneak in the VIP,” one woman conspires.

“Is anything special there?”

The other woman tilts her voice into a nasal birdcall and trills. “There’s music and tables!”

“Isn’t there music everywhere?”

“It’s in seven places,” the bird-call lady assures her friend.

“Then why do we need to sneak into the VIP?”

I see them in the VIP about 30 minutes later, shiftily watching the security guards in the hope that they won’t get nabbed. I decide to return back inside for an ahi tuna crisp, which to my knowledge is not even remotely a Middle Eastern delicacy. But why not? Hybridity is power.

I flop into the blob, straining every muscle to get food from Shani’s station. His hair is a thick powder-white glacier, his arm slices food at superhuman speed. The queue doesn’t budge. People are maniacally shoving for seconds and thirds while filming themselves doing it. The cheapest early bird tickets were a staggering $260 and no hummus will get out of here alive. A representative of the festival keeps attempting to corral the mob into the main courtyard for the entertainment. A fatal error. Bread is mentioned 492 times in the Bible. The prophet Ezekiel even offers a recipe. Besides, it takes more than a half century of prosperity to fully eradicate a scarcity mentality ingrained over millennia. The trauma is in our genes, and the only answer is food.

Realizing that no one will leave the room until the buffet has been completely vanquished, the festival staff wises up and orders the chefs to head onstage. By now, my stomach protrudes like a second trimester—yet I could withstand at least three more duels to the death with that brisket. Ushered out into the grand foyer, I witness the event assuming its final form: the bar mitzvah. The chefs are now onstage prancing in their white aprons, captained by a respectably aloof Shani, who is presumably filming himself for Instagram Live.

What I can only describe as a low-budget Israeli Shakira in a sparkling body suit struts across the stage flanked by a full band with a three-piece brass ensemble and three gospel backing singers. Shakira starts belting out a mildly competent medley of Stevie Wonder numbers to the marvel of the show’s MC, an amiable yutz in a sparkling tuxedo. The chefs are dancing. The chefs should not dance. The MC strangles the microphone and demands that we show “THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA.” He conscripts the chefs for a “quick photo-op.” He roars for the crowd to rush the stage and snap photos, “YOU WON’T SEE THIS EVERY DAY.” At this moment, I’ve never felt more American, Los Angeles-born.

Then he shouts for the crowd to scream “TASTE OF ISRAEL.” As soon as they do, four sequined kosher Rockettes sashay on stage to back up Shakira, who is now covering “Crazy in Love.” Uh, oh. Oh, no.

There is no point in being here any longer, so I start to inconspicuously slink back to the elevator until two old men in plastic party fedoras, glimmering rhinestone sport coats, and wandering eyes stop me to ask if they can do a magic trick. I nod my head and they do that old bar mitzvah sleight-of-hand card hustle where I’m asked to “pick a card, any card.” I select a 7 of hearts. Accordingly, one of the members of the magician’s alliance suddenly makes it materialize from the bottom of the deck, and then lifts up the worn-out sole of his leather shoe. There it is again, the 7 of hearts.

I offer a wan smile, and shake his outstretched hand. Then I notice he has “God” and “Love” delicately painted on his fingernails. He hands me a flyer and tries to convince me to come to another food festival next weekend. But it’s already too late. I’m gone.


You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.

Jeff Weiss, the editor of Passion of the Weiss, is a regular contributor to The Washington Post, the LA Times, and Pitchfork. His Twitter feed is @Passionweiss.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.